Best DEET, Picaridin, and Natural Insect Repellents: How to Choose

Insect Repellents

DEET and Picaridin-based insect repellent sprays and lotions (bug dope) are available from a wide range of brands and in a variety of forms factors. How effective are they are repelling mosquitos and ticks? What are the best concentrations to get? Which ones are the safest to use for children and pregnant women? Can insect repellents damage clothing and gear? Are lotions and wipes more effective than pump sprays or aerosol cans? Are there any natural products that have also proven effective at repelling mosquitos and ticks?

Insect Repellents: Key Takeaways

  • DEET and Picaridin insect repellents are more effective and longer-lasting than most natural insect repellents and oils
  • 20% and 30% concentrations are just effective as 100% but may need to be applied more often
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), a natural insect repellent, is also quite effective in a 30% concentration. Other natural products are not effective.
  • Insect repellents are best used in conjunction with protective clothing. Wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and head net when insects are most active.
  • Apply Permethrin to clothing or purchase Insect Shield treated clothing, which repels insects and helps prevent them from biting through clothing.
  • Wrist bands, clip-on fans, citronella candles, and natural repellents like lemongrass, cinnamon, cedar, clove, rosemary, or spearmint don’t work very well.
  • Read insect repellent instructions carefully and apply them as directed. Many questions are answered by reading product directions or manufacturers’ safety sheets, found online.

Insect Repellents: In-depth

DEET

DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is found in Sawyer Jungle Juice (concentration of 98%), Ben’s 100 Max Formula Insect Repellent (95%) and Repel 100 Insect Repellent Spray (98%). In use since 1946, it’s the most widely used insect repellent today, and highly effective against mosquitos and ticks. The smell of DEET is highly offensive to mosquitos who avoid the scent.

Studies have found that the 20%-30% concentrations of DEET are just as effective as the 100% concentrations listed above, but need to be applied more frequently. DEET with a 100% concentration can last up to 12 hours, while 30% DEET concentrations last up to 6 hours before requiring reapplication.

Lower concentration 30% DEET is also available in slow-release lotions, which can last up to 12 hours before needing to be reapplied. Ultrathon 34% Insect Repellent is the most popular long-lasting formulation and ideal for overseas travel to areas infested with malaria-carrying mosquitos because a little goes a long way.

One of the downsides of DEET-based insect repellent is that it will fog plastic lenses on watch faces, smartphones, and glasses. It also dissolves synthetics-based clothing, so be very careful when applying it to keep it away from plastic and clothes you care about.

30% concentrations of DEET are safe for use by pregnant women and small children. When applying DEET to children, don’t let them apply it themselves. Instead, spray it or rub it on your hands before rubbing it on exposed skin. Do not apply near eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. Avoid applying DEET to their hands because children frequently put their hands in their mouths and eyes. Only apply to skin that is exposed and not under clothing. Avoid the use of DEET near food and water. Wash with soap and water at the end of the day.

Picaridin

Picaridin became available in the United States in 2005 and is a synthetic compound, related in structure to black pepper. It repels mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, sand flies, gnats, chiggers, and midges. It is widely used in Europe and recommended by the World Health Organization for the prevention of malaria in 40 countries.

The most effective concentration of Picaridin is 20% and will last up 8-12 hours before repeat application is required. Lower concentrations, sometimes found in wipes are only moderately less effective.

Unlike DEET, Picaridin is safe to use around plastics, synthetic apparel, and gear with synthetic coatings such as fishing line, sunglasses, watches, GPS units, or phone screens.

Picaridin is considered to be safe for children as young as 2 months of age and pregnant women. Contact with the eyes and mouth should be avoided, however, and the usage directions followed carefully.

Lotions, Wipes, Aerosols, and Pumps

Insect Repellent lotions last considerably longer than sprays of comparable DEET or Picaridin concentrations because the repellent is rubbed into the skin, delaying evaporation. It’s also far more accurate than applying insect repellent with a spray or pump because it’s easy to accidentally miss areas. Wipes also provide an effective way to apply insect repellent to the skin but result in additional waste which must be disposed of after use.

Spray-on and pump sprays containing DEET are also harder to direct accurately when applied and can ruin plastic gear or synthetic garments if the spray is accidentally applied to them. If you accidentally apply DEET to gear and clothing, immediately rinse it off with plenty of water to prevent damage.

Natural Insect Repellents

Research studies by the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Consumers Union have shown that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) is the only effective natural insect repellent proven effective against mosquitos and ticks. It’s important not to confuse this product with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil which is a very different product.

OLE, available as Repel Lemon Eucalyptus is effective for up to 6 hours in a 30% concentration. However, OLE has not been well-tested on children, and the CDC and Consumer Union advise against using it on children under 3 years of age.  Natural insect repellents including citronella, spearmint, clove, lemongrass, and other botanicals have not proven to be effective insect repellents for mosquitos and ticks.

What’s your preferred insect repellent for mosquitos and ticks?

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11 comments

  1. Thanks Phil for gathering this information in one place with clear explanations of each type.

    I’m going to try Picarisin for a Boundary Waters canoe trip with my grandsons, especially to protect our synthetic clothing that is necessary in a wet world.

  2. Christine Tessier

    Philip – Do you have any info on the Nantucket Spider’s tick repellent? According to their website, lab tests show that it’s 92% effective against ticks.

      • I used Nantucket Spider for a couple of years (mostly around home and with the family, since I use permethrin-treated clothing for hiking), but haven’t used it again since trying Picaridin lotion, which I find vastly superior. Nantucket Spider would fall under the “Natural Repellents” Philip discussed above, as it is a mix of citronella, spearmint oil, rosemary oil and a bunch of other oils. It feels oily to put on (because that’s what it is) and it also smells incredibly strong–like citronella and a ton of strong spices, and that smell gets into your clothes. The food-like smell makes me wonder how smart it is to use in places where it could attract wildlife. Meanwhile, Picaridin in lotion form absorbs quickly, isn’t greasy, has a mild smell, and works for many hours.

  3. I’ve had great luck with Picaridin in the last 5 years of using it. I’m a mosquito magnet wherever I go and when I apply the lotion correctly the day is just so much happier for me.
    Good to know the difference between Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) and Lemon Eucalyptus Oil. My wife loves naturals so we’ll give OLE a try.

  4. I’m not fully sold on Insect Shield yet, I’ve watched mosquitoes land on my brand new unwashed Insect Shield shirt, with no effect. That said I use Insect Shield clothing, self-treated Permethrin garments, and Picaridin spray. Though DEET is highly rated, because of my valuable “plastic” based clothing and gear it’s a no go for me. FYI Consumer Reports just did an article and tests last month on insect repellents. An interesting read and results, here is the link to the free part: https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/insect-repellent/buying-guide/index.htm

  5. I live in New England where ticks are truly on the march. I’ve had terrific luck so far with cedar oil as a tick repellent. It also seems to work well on other biting flies, including deer flies, but those little killers are not yet peaking here so I will be happily surprised if the cedar oil remains effective as their population rises.
    Other than that, Picaridin works extremely well.

    • How do you apply cedar oil? Do you put it on your skin or on clothing? Can you go into more detail? Sounds promising.

      • after very little research, it appears that it is a spray that can be applied to skin and clothes and safe for pets as well. It may be worth trying, but as (they) say, if it sounds to good to be true , it probably is. I haven’t had any luck with natural repellants. In fact I had to cut short a trip once. I hate Deet but it works well. If I do any more trials I will always have Deet with me. July and August are brutal in the bug department when backpacking in N.H.

      • Picaridin for NH. Just as good as Deet and won’t destroy synthetics/plastic.

  6. Since it is the season, what do people use for black flies in the north woods? I have never found Deet effective. Have used pine tar based Ole Time Woodsman’s Fly Dope for over 50 years – repels anything including people!

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